I was struck by an offhand comment I overheard the other day. Well, said the speaker, I’d love to sit at home all day and write, but I have to go to work. And it seemed that this is a key bit of misunderstanding in how a society sees writers. Unlike artists, writers hardly ever have much to show for our process. There is not a stack of canvases to display, or sounds and smells emitting from a studio of cans of paint and brushstrokes. In the old days, the clatter of keys was the sound of a writer writing, or the scratch scratch of pen on paper, but one doesn’t usually display drafts of underlined manuscript, nubs of pencils. In fact, very few of us sit up all night feverishly writing a novel, with a break to eat an apple, swadled in crazily patterned yet terribly chic knitted things, the way Jo did in the recent film of Little Women. Usually, a writer wakes, attends to the task at hand, and emerges a bit sleepy and disheveled to check the mail. One doesn’t make chitchat because the conversations are arranging themselves inside. So I imagine what a person who might write at home looks like is a person not working at all.
Of course, writing is work, and not often pleasurable. It’s work. Creating is fun, but weighing each word and aligning it with another, revising a paragraph, and re-typing an entire chapter only to throw it away, is most definately not fun. But then come those moments, when the world around you seems to fall away, and something clicks, and feels write, I mean right and all is impossibly good.
Not to say there aren’t The Distractions working at home. There is the time spent on social media until one flinches back and shuts it down. There is the time spent reading the news, doing laundry, sweeping the floor. There might be the nap following reading whatever book one is buried in at the moment. I start in the morning, and stop after four hours. I make my favorite lunch ( grilled cheese) and attend to correspondence. And at dinner time, if I am really into my work, I watch the blandest tv possible with dinner, and head to bed. Months or years later, a book emerges. So while it may not look like work, it is. And that work accompanies you to every market trip, every Cafè stop, every dinner party. There is a need for tremendous head-space to create anything, and there is a certain disconnect from the world of 9-5. The work is invisible, but it’s going on, all the time.
Published in the year of his death from cancer, Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is a slow examination of a seventy-year-old’s confrontation with solitude and loss. The protagonist, a retired doctor, lives in a archipelago being visited by an arsonist, and we begin at the site of the first fire. Finding the arsonist is relegated to the background, as what it means to live in a community where trust is replaced by wariness is explored, even as death and old age is the larger specter in the forefront. Yet this is an optimistic novel, where friendship and family, however distant, is embraced, sometimes gingerly, sometimes with affection.
This was the one of the last books I read before I broke my wrist, but not the last book I’ve read since. There was a fatalistic stoicism in the narrative that strikes me deeper as I now try to fill my days with no-impact activity. Thus constrained to cat care, lackluster weeding, a great deal of sighing, a fascination of one-handed bottle opening techniques, elevating my arm on pillows, watching repeats of mysteries, instagram, I am reading with an awareness that my situation could have been worse. The Great Believers by the quite brilliant Rebecca Makkai, a Claire Messud novel, Elif Safak‘s Forty Rules of Love,and a wonderful novel by Caitlin Macy called Mrs. Now, biding my time, easing insomnia, I am romping through Kevin Kwan‘s Crazy Rich Asians, which will become a film*. it has an all-Asian cast, for it is story about Asians. Apparently, one filmperson wanted the heroine to be re-cast white, but no. She will be a wary non-rich, non-crazy Asian woman portrayed by an Asian.
Sometimes the fates shift the balance.
*the book is different than what the film preview shows, from dialogue to fashion, alas.